This opinion piece is by Deidra Riggs, a writer, speaker and a pastor’s wife, living in Lincoln, Neb. Her book, “Every Little Thing,” will be released this fall.
The video of a pool party gone wrong in McKinney, Tex., has much of America talking. Picking a side seems of utmost importance, even — and perhaps especially — among people of faith. But how does our perspective change when we consider that we belong to one another.
As we divide ourselves along racial lines, here are some lingering questions I’ve been asking:
How has the church, with our self-segregated congregations, contributed to this culture of “Us” vs. “Them”?
What difference might it make if the church could figure out how to worship across racial (and other) lines?
How would that change the deep divide we see today in response to incidents like McKinney among people of faith?
Many of us find it easy to identify with the young girl on the ground if we’ve found ourselves (literally or figuratively) pushed to the ground with our face shoved into the earth. Many of us who are parents talk about weeping when that young girl cried out for her momma.
Or on the flip side, those of us who know or are people who serve in law enforcement, or have felt threatened or disrespected have found ourselves advocating Eric Casebolt, the officer who recently resigned from his position.
We empathize with the people who seem to represent us, and whose stories we feel we know and have lived. We look at the girl on the ground or the officer barrel rolling into view, and we instantly identify with that person.
But, what if both the young girl and the officer in the McKinney video were considered to be “my people”? What would that change for us, as people of faith? How would our conversations change?
If the officer in the video believed that he and the young girl on the ground beneath his knee share a sacred connection simply by virtue of their humanity, and if she felt safe enough to believe it, too, we might have seen a different outcome that afternoon in McKinney. We might be having a different conversation, one that sounded more like hope and less like, “Here we go again.”
What would change if, in our conversations about McKinney, we refused to buy into the “Us” vs. “Them” narrative, and instead acted as though we all belong to one another? What can the church do to help move the conversation forward instead of rehashing the same arguments, watching the same videos, reading the same news stories — all with updated characters and locations — and hoping for different results?
In a Lifeway Research survey conducted in 2014, 82 percent of Americans polled agreed with the statement that racial diversity is good for America. In that same poll, 90 percent of Protestant pastors agreed with the statement that racial reconciliation is mandated by the gospel. Most of America and the majority of the pastors surveyed placed a high value on diversity and reconciliation.
And yet, in a January 2015 report of a survey, Lifeway reported that 8 in 10 congregations in America are made up of one predominant racial group. In other words, while as a country we say we believe racial diversity is a good thing, and pastors believe racial reconciliation is important to God, only 20 percent of congregations in America reflect the diversity we say we value. On top of that, an astounding 67 percent of churchgoers polled agreed with the statement “Our church is doing enough to be ethnically diverse.”
Working toward the desegregation of Christian congregations in America is a crucial step toward fewer incidents like what we’ve seen out of McKinney. While it won’t completely “fix” the problems of all of the isms and phobias in our American culture, the desegregation of our congregations is non-negotiable when it comes to seeing every single person as a person.
Even in communities where racial diversity is difficult to find (but not impossible), congregations can take a long look at other demographics and cultural differences, including income, education, family status and gender to begin to figure out how to get rid of dividing lines and walls that we have put up between one another and that keep us separated from one another, beginning with worship on Sunday mornings.
Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist, conducts research and writes extensively about the importance of de-segregating Christian congregations in North America.
“This racial segregation in congregations in our modern, diverse nation has many costs. When congregations are racially segregated, there is less opportunity for intergroup mobility … and more importance is placed on racial boundaries, separate racial identities, and other differences between groups” Emerson wrote in a 2010 article. “Though many in the religious community call and work for an end to racial division and inequality, the very organization of religion into segregated congregations often undercuts their efforts.”
We are reminded that not so long ago, people of color were kept out of public pools by the laws on the books. Today, the laws may have changed, but homeowners’ associations and private clubs still keep many communities divided along racial and economic lines when a dip in the pool comes into play. Our churches aren’t segregated by an act of law, but most of us who go to church this Sunday will find ourselves surround by a congregation of people who look a lot like us.
In her work with undergraduate students at the University of Nebraska, Helen Fagan has discovered that, when it comes to cultural competency, we grow most when we are around people who are not like us. We are challenged to see things from a different perspective, and when we reflect on our reactions to these different perspectives, our cultural competency grows.
But consider these benefits of learning to worship across racial lines. Emerson says in his same article,
“Through national surveys we find that people in multiracial congregations have significantly more friendships across race than do other Americans. For example, for those attending racially homogenous congregations, 83 percent said most or all of their friends were the same race as them. For those not attending any congregation, 70 percent said most or all of their friends were the same race as them.
“But for those attending multiracial congregations, there is a dramatic difference. Only 36 percent of people attending racially mixed congregation said most or all of their friends were the same race as them. And we found that those 36 percent were relatively recent arrivals to their racially mixed congregations.”
When we desegregate our Sunday morning worship experience, we open ourselves up to more and more opportunities for friendships with people who are not like us in appearance, culture, history, perspectives, political viewpoints and even issues of faith.
When we desegregate our Sunday morning worship experience, we begin to develop deeply significant friendships with people we may have thought “don’t belong” or “shouldn’t be allowed” or don’t do things the “right way.” We broaden the scope of whom we can identify with and we elevate the conversation and our role it. We also elevate our behavior when we’re the adults at the scene of a pool party gone wrong.